From the Motor City to Car Free

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation. - Gustavo Petro, Mayor of Bogota. 

My family's history in the car industry reads like some biblical genealogy. On my mom's side, my great uncle and great grandfather worked for Pontiac Motors, my grandfather for Fisher Body, countless other aunts and cousins at plants my mom can't remember. 


My paternal great grandfather Floyd worked for decades at the very first Ford assembly plant in Highland Park, MI. My grandfather helped build engines at Detroit Diesel. Although my dad doesn't work for the industry, his trucking company gets much of its business shipping parts for various automakers. You get the idea...
My great grandfather Floyd's Ford employee pass
Such sprawling, multi-generational involvement in the car industry is typical of most families that live in southeast Michigan and the highways filled with Chevys, Chryslers, Fords and Buicks are one very visible reminder. I get a twinge of reverse culture-shock every time I pass the "Pure Michigan" welcome sign on my way home as I'm steadily flanked by products of the Big 3 on all sides.

Love and Cars: My Paternal Grandparents
I got my driver's license at 17 and have owned a car -- mostly hand-me-downs -- ever since. But I've never enjoyed the need to depend on it. When I moved to DC earlier this year, I found I could bike or even walk to work, take the bus to meet colleagues for lunch, take the Metro to see friends. The ability to choose from multiple forms of transportation is a luxury nearly unimaginable in my home state (unless you hop in a time machine). 

(There's certainly room for improvement in DC, especially when it comes to inter-city travel. One dreams of high-speed rail lines connecting major cities, a Metro system without terminal escalator outages, extensive separated bike paths, etc...)
The Old Me
The New Me, With Stronger Legs
So after my car started collecting cobwebs behind the house, I realized going car-free was possible. Don't get me wrong. I like my car. I like blasting music with the windows down driving the GW Parkway at night with the lights of the city sparking in the distance. I like that its namesake, Pontiac, hearkens back to my family's involvement in the car industry. And who knows, I might need one in the future. But now I'm using some lo-fi ways of getting around town that are better for my wallet, for my city, and for the environment.

Another One Bites the (Coal) Dust

On my way to an Anacostia Riverkeeper event at the unique Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens this morning, I passed by PEPCO's Benning Road power plant in NE DC, which was shut down two months ago. Such closings are part of a national trend: US power generation from coal dropped nearly 20% in just one year, mostly due to cheap natural gas prices (which, unlike "all-of-the-above" boosters, I'm highly ambivelant about, but that's another story).


The plant shut down on June 1, but coal cars are still lined up next to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station:

Burning toxic rocks for energy? How passé.


Of the power plant's lasting legacy, the Sierra Club has this to say:
The big issue is the possible PCB contamination of the soil on this 70-acre site and the leaching of those chemicals into the groundwater and the river it abuts. Many of the homes in this section of the city require sump pumps to remove water from basements flooded by underground creeks. We have recently heard that the water entering these homes comes with odd odors. Though only anecdotal for now, our coalition and local community leaders are beginning to mount an environmental health study to determine if residents are being directly exposed to toxins in the water. 
Via Clean Water Action:
The plant, which only operates ten to fifteen days per year during periods of peak energy demand, will be officially closing in 2012. However, Benning Road will remain a major threat to public health until 100 years of pollutants and toxins are thoroughly mitigated... It will be important for citizens to be active in pressuring the DDOE to complete a timely cleanup. For too long we have accepted that the reality of the Anacostia is pollution and poor health for communities downstream.

Equity and Sustainability in Washington, DC

Elvert Barnes / Flickr
I moved to DC at an interesting time: after years of declining population, the city now has more people than it's had in 2 decades: 617,000. As Grist has pointed out, cities are the new suburbs in terms of desirability. Young professionals don't want the 'burbs they grew up in: they want transit-friendly, lively neighborhoods and DC is seeing the effect of this shift.

But the obvious downside to this trend is that property values rise with desirability, making it harder for low income (and often long-time) residents to stick around gentrifying neighborhoods.

This was one of the major themes that surfaced in tonight's Sustainable DC community discussion on equity. The conversation was charged at times (as a new resident, I mostly sat back and tried to figure out what was going on!), but even the tough topics were satisfying to hear spoken about so candidly.

Segregation in the DC-metro region (blue is white, red is black: WaPo)
In the midst of Mayor Gray's Sustainable DC initiative launched last year (with the intention of making DC the "healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the US"), the city faces some tough stats: an 18% poverty rate, 11,000+ homeless, a 25% unemployment rate in Ward 8 where our meeting was held.

With those kinds of problems, the word "sustainability" certainly sounds a bit elitist, but everyone agreed that's more of a framing and communication issue than a substantive disconnect. At its core and done right, sustainability is about fostering resilient communities and that's something everyone can hitch their wagon to.

The insights from Wards 7 and 8 residents were valuable to hear. They live in a catch-22 situation: frustrated that they have to travel to other parts of the city for work, shopping and healthy food, but weary of developers that might come into their neighborhood to build fancy housing and amenities for rich folks. In either scenario, access to the benefits of a healthy community are out of reach.

It's easy to see why "green" can be seen as a tool of gentrification, but not if diverse voices are given the chance to define sustainability for themselves. As one participant said: traditionally "green" cities like Seattle or Portland don't "feel black". What works for Portland, in other words, is not necessarily what will work for DC, a city with a majority African-American population.

There are also more political and bureaucratic issues: how do zoning and education, for instance, and advisory neighborhood commissioners influence residents engagement with sustainability? What's the best way to communicate Sustainable DC to people? Who are the best local partners to work with?

Dennis Chestnut, a local hero and Director of Groundwork Anacostia, summed up the best way to reach out to underserved communities: "Come with resources, come with an open mind, and listen". Listening is an excellent place to start.

Undoing a Dam

Stopped briefly at Thompson's Boat Center along the Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown yesterday and admired the powerful, gushing waters of Rock Creek as it met the wide, still Potomac. I stood on a narrow wooden bridge, hypnotized by the strength of the creek as it churned over rocks. Three fisherman cast lines at the mouth. One reeled in a little fish--blue gill?--and tossed it back in. I used to know the names of these fish when I was younger.

It reminded me of this clip I'd see earlier of Condit Dam being removed from the White Salmon River in Washington state last autumn. The river wrestles out of its confinement and practically explodes with energy as the dam is destroyed. Powerful.